Friday, April 29, 2005

A Lesson from Vatican Electoral Politics

I have written numerous times about the importance of supermajorities in avoiding the divisiveness of partisan politics and the extremism of bare majorities. Andrew Sullivan makes an interesting observation, that this same principle may have been at work in the recent papal election. In a 1996 act that got little attention, Pope John Paul II modified the rules of papal elections, specifically weakening a supermajority requirement that had been in place since the 12th century. The old rules had required that the College of Cardinals elect a pope by a two-thirds majority. This supermajority mechanism operated to ensure that a pope was broadly acceptable to the cardinals. A candidate thought to be too extreme (in any direction) by a third of the cardinals could be blocked, even if supported by a majority, and a compromise candidate would have to be selected instead. Under the new rules put in place by John Paul II, the college would try for a two-thirds majority election, but if a pope were not elected after a specified number of days, the supermajority requirement could be relaxed to a simple majority. This subtle change meant that any candidate that had a bare majority no longer needed to compromise, since he could just hold out. Since everyone knew that, there would be no incentive to compromise, and even incentive to "cut to the chase". It is quite likely that this "little tweak" of procedure affected the outcome of the papal election.

Thoughtful students of election theory can apply this lesson to the current American debate over the filibuster. The Republicans (who have the bare majority at the moment) would like to eliminate this supermajority mechanism at least for judicial appointments. But it is lifetime judicial appointments where the danger of partisanship makes a supermajority requirement most important.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The City

Just back from a great trip to New York City. It was only a few short days, but we managed to pack in a ton of things, so it feels like it was a week. Some highlights:
  • the Cloisters, an extension of the Metropolitan Museum showcasing medieval art and architecture, in a gorgeous setting on the north tip of Manhattan along the Hudson River. Large parts of European abbeys and cathedrals have been relocated here and neatly integrated into a Romanesque limestone home for gorgeous tapestries, carvings, and stained glass
  • the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which vividly illustrates the 1890s Jewish immigrant experience in situ in an actual tenement building. (this was quite relevant to the experience of my own great-grandparents)
  • Mt. Zion Cemetery in Queens, where we discovered the gravestones for my great-grandparents and a great-aunt. It was really quite interesting to see the symbolism and Jewish traditions in the various headstones, for example, we realized that the headstones carved in the form of a tree trunk with chopped off limbs symbolized those (like my great-aunt Celia) who died young.
  • Avenue Q, the Tony-winning Broadway musical that someone aptly described as "Sesame Street on crack". Quite humorous.
  • Jesus Kid Brother, a workshop for a new musical play that should be winning Tony awards in the near future.
  • Greenwich Village, where we did a fascinating walking tour during the day that took in many interesting old streets, houses, and establishments entwined with historical characters such as Aaron Burr, Washington Irving, Edna St. Vincent Milay, Eugene O'Neill, and many more; and then hit a fun piano bar (Marie's Crisis) in the evening
  • stumbled onto a concert by the Wroclaw Philharmonic at St. Patrick's Cathedral, featuring a choral and symphonic work called "Missa Pro Pace" (Mass for Peace) by the Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, performed in memoriam John Paul II
  • nice walk thru Central Park, where the tulips, dogwoods, cherries and pears are blooming
  • window shopping down 5th Avenue, including FAO Schwarz and Bergdorf Goodman (just to make fun of the prices - I mean come on, $375 for a T-shirt? So it's made in Italy. By hand? By the Pope?)
  • some good restaurants, particularly including Bistro du Vent on 42nd west of Ninth where we had an excellent dinner, and Maison, a very convenient and unexpectedly good and reasonable bistro at 53rd and Seventh.
As New York City always does, it left us wanting more.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Blogging Break

It's been long hours at work this past week, and now we're heading off to New York City for several days vacation. Blogging break until later next week!

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Will the Pope's Past Predict His Future?

While I join the many conscientious Catholics (and Catholic watchers) who are justifiably wary of the new Pope, I am reminded that one should not always assume someone's record is an infallible indicator of how they will fill a new role. Sometimes the weight of responsibility of a supreme position, its elevated perspective, or the independence of a lifetime appointment can transform a person. It was not too long ago that Rowan Williams was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, an appointment greeted eagerly by liberal followers of Anglican affairs who were familiar with some of his prior writings (e.g., on homosexuality). But rather than becoming the liberal reforming leader his record might have suggested, the Archbishop has found his calling in being "moderator in chief", struggling to navigate the difficult path of holding together an increasingly divided global communion, with his personal sympathies set aside for this goal. In the political world, many a US president can vouch for how Supreme Court justices can't always be predictable, even with a well-documented prior record. (Justice Lewis Powell, at a dinner I attended honoring his retirement, spoke of the transformative effect of being invested with great responsibility.) On the other hand, the orthodoxy of the newest Pope does not represent a firmly unchanged lifelong position so much as an evolved trajectory. The gravity of his new office may strengthen his current direction rather than transform it. As to the sort of Pope he will become, we can only hope and pray. The Spirit may yet move him in unexpected ways.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Which Color Smoke?

Today as the College of Cardinals begins its conclave to select the next Pope, the sport of the day is speculation not only about the Pope himself, but about the future of the church. The "one church Catholic and universal" seems increasingly divided between the "first world" (US, Canada, and Europe) and third world Catholics, with the former seeming to wither from attrition while the latter flourishes with renewed energy. In America and Europe, increasing numbers of Catholics are Catholic in name only, with some vague reverence for family tradition, but selective adherence to actual doctrine (if they're even familiar with it), and diminishing actual attendance at church. Likewise, the corps of priests and nuns are aging with fewer young recruits to replace their ranks. Meanwhile, in Africa and Latin America, the church is strong and growing, with a fervent orthodoxy more akin to first world evangelicals than to traditional Catholics. Will the new Pope be a more liberal European, moving the church toward reclaiming its relevance in the first world? Or will the new Pope be from the third world, increasing the focus of the church on the areas where it is growing fastest? Or will the cardinals seek a middle way, someone like Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, said to be the "early favorite". Some may see in Cardinal Ratzinger a European who can still speak to the West, but with unimpeachable orthodox credentials (forged from years leading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) that should appeal to the third world notions on doctrine. Others may view him as the worst of both worlds, his advanced age being his only redeeming feature. (Conventional wisdom says that it's not good to be the early favorite.)

This same struggle between first world liberalism and disaffection versus third world growth and orthodoxy is also playing itself out in the Anglican church, with the recent ordination of a gay bishop by the US Episcopal Church and the blessing of same sex unions by an Episcopal diocese in Canada signifying the fault lines. The Catholic and Anglican denominations are remarkably similar in much of their tradition and doctrine, but in obvious structural ways they are quite different. The Catholic church is organized along extreme hierarchy with supreme authority vested in the Pope, while the Anglican Communion is a global federation of churches with the Archbishop of Canterbury as its first among equals and moderator in chief but with no solid authority over the other archbishops. In other words, we have strong central government in the Catholics, and a federalist government in the Anglicans. As the evolution of this liberal-orthodox struggle unfolds within these two churches, it will be interesting to see how it plays out. At this point, it is not at all clear which system will be better prepared to handle it. Either church could face a schism (either an explicit one, or just an effective one by attrition and disaffection). Either church could undergo a miraculous transformation that heals the divide. We'll just have to watch over the coming years to see which color the smoke comes out.

(Extra credit questions: Will the smoke thing actually work this time? In the previous papal elections that I can recall, despite the best of modern technology, they couldn't get the smoke to come out white or black like it's supposed to. And where is the "second world" anyway?)

Saturday, April 16, 2005

FILM: Eating Out

Eating Out was fun, fun, fun! I haven't laughed so much in a long time. The tagline for this movie is "the fastest way to a girl's heart is through her gay best friend". Here's the gist: Caleb wants Gwen, while Caleb's roommate Kyle wants Gwen's best friend Marc, but of course Marc wants Caleb. Kyle convinces Caleb to pretend to be gay in order to win Gwen through Marc. Sexy, hysterical mayhem ensues. This clever film plays with the perennial themes of love and sex, adding a playful twist on sexual orientation to create a "comedy of manners" for the 21st century. Instead of 18th century disguises, sexual orientation is the mask, and there are cellphones instead of screens, but the comedy is just as classic. And what truly makes it work, as with any good comedy of manners, is the keen insight into our human nature. Writer/director Q. Allan Brocka clearly knows all about wanting what we can't have, pretending not to want what we really most want, and other such games we play, and he's written it incisively into his script with dead-on truth that would be heart-piercing if it weren't so funny at the same time. His ear for language, his queer eye (equally adept at sexy bodies and kitschy architecture), and his sense of timing and pace all make this film really work. He playfully slips in thoughtful juxtapositions that explore acting, pretending, faking and reality, while keeping us laughing for the whole ride. The cast were all superb, including the adorably guileless straight boy Caleb (Scott Lunsford), lusty faghag Gwen (Emily Stiles), kinky erstwhile girlfriend Tiffani (Rebekah Kochan), and star-crossed gay boys Marc (Ryan Carnes, newly resident gay boy on Wisteria Lane) and Kyle (Jim Verraros, a finalist from the first American Idol). We thoroughly enjoyed this.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Stewardship: For Other People's Grandchildren

Here's another virtue for our time: stewardship. The word in its plainest sense means taking good care of things that have been loaned to us, such as when we borrow a friend's car, or care for a hotel room or an apartment as if we owned it rather than rented it. As a virtue, it means the recognition that life does not begin and end with each of us, and that the resources that enable and enrich our lives came to us from those before us and will be left by us to those after us.

The word has long been used in some religious traditions, by people who believe that all resources in this world ultimately come from God, and that they may be entrusted to us by Him during our temporary stay in this world. For that reason, some people believe it is important to take good care of the Creation we have been entrusted with. This can get complicated for those whose religious convictions include the belief that "the end is at hand", since such people might understandably lose their incentive for a long-term view of resource conservation. But to remain truly virtuous, those people must tend to their souls as if the end is near, at the same time tending to the world as if the end is not near. The former entails the latter, for to do otherwise -- "the end is near, so buy the Hummer and don't worry about the future" -- is just plain greedy and selfish. And greedy and selfish is not a good state of soul to be caught in when the trumpets blow.

For those not of such a religious mind, there are good secular reasons for stewardship. From a Kantian morality (more or less the "golden rule", to treat others as you would have all others treat you) or a utilitarian perspective (maximizing happiness), stewardship is the logical consequence of taking future generations into consideration. For Kantians, we must refrain from guzzling all the fossil fuels and leaving none for our great-grandchildren, just as we are grateful that our predecessors left some for us. For utilitarians, the total happiness calculations come out negative if the marginal happiness increase for the current generation in polluting, overfishing, and destroying the ozone layer is overwhelmed by endless future generations full of cancer and diminished food supply.

Some such as Andrew Sullivan have recently noted with interest a convergence of "hippies, hawks, and theocons" around environmental issues (and in particular, eliminating our dependence on fossil fuel), a rallying together of religious and secular notions of stewardship. Stewardship is much associated with environmental and energy issues, but it relates to other issues as well. Fixing Social Security many years before the ship hits the iceberg, and fixing it in such a way that is fair to our grandchildren, is a matter of stewardship. For those who are parents, our children provide a natural call to stewardship. For the rest of us, stewardship is a noble call to think beyond ourselves, to leave the world better than we found it, for the sake of other people's grandchildren.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


When I first started this blog, one of the topics I intended to write about was virtue. (See the blog tagline at the top.) I haven't done a whole lot of that until last night when I wrote about respectfulness, and it seems this week is an appropriate week to make a theme of it. Historically, Catholics have had a lot to say about virtue, and lately everybody has had a lot to say about Catholics. I have some things to say about the Catholic church and the moral teachings of the late Pope, but out of due respect, I am refraining from criticism of past Popes and speculation about future ones during the novum diales, the official 9-day period of mourning. (An aside: tradition such as the novum diales, or the Jewish sitting shevah -- 7 days of mourning -- are quite practical and comforting. People who have recently suffered a loss are distraught enough without having to fret about whether they're mourning too long or not long enough. It's nice to have a clear guide about what is appropriate, and avoid unseemly questions of oneself or of others.) Thus, it seems an appropriate way to honor the novum diales by contemplating virtue this week.

One of the compelling things about virtue is that it is a positive aspiration ("strive for this") rather than a negative prohibition ("thou shalt not that"). As I wrote last night, virtue is about building character through practice over time. Cultivating virtue is a worthy lifetime project, while obeying prohibitions gives little guidance for what we should do once we've avoided doing what we shouldn't. Virtue is by its nature much more challenging than avoiding prohibitions, requiring much more judgment. Most "shalt nots" are pretty cut and dried. You murder someone or you don't. You commit adultery or you don't. There are no shades of gray in prohibitions. Virtues require judgment, and are always shades of gray. While you can't be "a little bit adulterous", you can be somewhat charitable, moderately patient, mostly faithful, and sometimes prudent. Dave Jansing, in an excellent essay recommending virtues for the modern gay community, has this to say about virtue:

In the recent past, we have heard a lot of talk about "moral values". It's clear that in many cases, the term "moral value" was used as a way of judging others, used as a way of sizing people up to see if they measured up to a certain standard. Instead, we might choose to think about "moral virtues". As such, a contemplation of virtue calls us not to judge others but to examine ourselves.
Whereas "values" are often yardsticks used to measure others, and "morality" is often a club used to bludgeon others, virtues are a mirror that calls us to look at ourselves, and they are works of art that inspire us to live better. As Dave writes, virtues are a calling to be good people.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

All Due Respect

When enumerating virtues, "respectfulness" is not one that typically comes to mind, though I think it is a useful virtue for our times (and one in short supply). Respectfulness is both an inner attitude and an outer expression of that attitude. The inner attitude entails extending faith that others always may have something worthwhile to contribute, and that their contributions should be judged on their own merits, rather than prejudged based on a prior opinion of the person. This includes the belief that people in positions of respect should be given respect by default. (Not that they must be respected under any circumstances, but that they should be presumed worthy of respect until proven otherwise.) The outer expression of this attitude is manifested by civil and respectful forms of address, for example, calling officials by their proper title, such as President Bush or Senator Clinton (as opposed to merely "Bush" or "Hilary"). While some may object to this as a hollow formalism (or worse still, hypocrisy, if the "outer" respectfulness masks a lack of inner respect), I have come to believe that it is an essential part of the practice of the virtue of respectfulness. (Careful readers will notice that I have endeavored to follow this precept in my blogging.) In an intriguing blog about Leftists and Civility, Prof. William Vallicella makes these observations about the connection between the inner and the outer:
[Conservatives] see no reason to reject as phony or ‘precious’ something that is conducive to good living. They understand that since we live in a world of appearances, a certain amount of concern with them is reasonable. They also understand that by faking it a bit, one brings oneself actually to feel the emotions that one began by faking. For example, by saying ‘Good Morning’ when I don’t quite feel like it, I contribute to my own perception of the morning as good. Or if I say, ‘With all due respect’ to an opponent for whom I initially feel little respect, I make it more likely that I will see the merit of his arguments and come to respect him. Respectful behavior leads to feeling respect. The outer does not merely express the inner; it partially determines the inner.
I believe that he is correct in these observations, and in fact it is this connection between the inner and the outer that leads me to view respectfulness as a virtue. A common characteristic of virtues is that they are forged through practice. One's virtues are part of one's character, and character must be developed, by intentionally acting as one would wish to be, repeatedly, until through practice one comes to be so.

We should all be familiar with the experience that it is much easier to be horrendously offensive in email than it is to be so when face-to-face. When speaking to someone directly, we are more mindful that we are confronting a person. When writing an email, the inherent detachment in the mode of communication makes it all too easy to forget the usual brakes on disrespect. It's even easier to ride a runaway train of sarcastic invective if one is being disrespectful in forms of address. We can imagine that very different sorts of commentary would start off with "President Clinton ..." versus "Bubba ...". On the other hand, keeping to a habit of respectful address, especially when addressing someone you disagree with, will of itself slow down the runaway train, just because the same tone will more naturally follow a more respectful start. And as Prof. Vallicella said, if we give even the lip-service of all due respect, in time we may come to actually have due respect.

Sunday, April 10, 2005


Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it's a boon for a genealogist. I had recently had a breakthrough yielding several generations further back on one of my family lines. Amidst lots of interesting new information, one little tidbit of data caught my eye. My 5x-great-grandmother was listed as born in 1771 in Curacoa [sic], W.I. How intriguing, I thought. What was she doing being born on some island in the Dutch West Indies? (Images of Kyra Sedgwick playing the governor's daughter in Pirates of the Caribbean flashed through my head.) Google didn't turn up anything, so I found an online bulletin board associated with Dutch Antilles genealogy and posted a few queries. At first I was striking out, as my relative's name did not turn up in various church records and other records from the period that a kind respondent searched for me. Then just yesterday, a connection came through. It turns out that my 5x-great-grandmother's father was from New York, a sailor who plied the colonial West Indies trade route, and who lived in Curacao for a brief period. It further turns out that he was quite a character, and among other things, an expert nautical pilot who was highly regarded and employed by George Washington during the Revolutionary War for his knowledge of the New York harbor and Hudson river navigation. He served on a number of missions during most of the war, but it seems that late in the War he was caught and killed by the British. Thus, from simple curiosity about an unusual birthplace, my mother can now join the DAR. As it always goes with genealogy, each puzzle solved leads to more puzzles, but it certainly pays to keep one's eyes open for the out-of-the-ordinary bits that can often provide the key to finding new information.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

FILM: Bride and Prejudice

We weren't sure what exactly to expect from Bride and Prejudice, but it turned out to be quite a fun romp. This will be hard to imagine, but this film takes the Jane Austen classic, resets the story in present-day India, and makes a Bollywood movie with an MTV sensibility. Amazingly, it works. The Austen themes of families of strong bright daughters seeking true love and marriage, with character triumphing over class, transplant quite well, finding fertile ground in the Indian soil of arranged marriages and matchmaking, and traditional cultures confronting new world capitalist excess. And having become acquainted with the character struggles faced by young Indian women thanks to other excellent movies such as Monsoon Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham, made the Austen transplant even easier. However, being unacquainted with the genre of Bollywood movies, we were caught off guard at first when the characters in our romantic film suddenly burst into big-scale song-and-dance production numbers. These numbers were sometimes funny and sometimes spectacularly colorful, featuring a rainbow of traditional Indian costumes. They were sometimes a bit corny, and sometimes a bit sexy (don't know how much of that is authentic Bollywood, and how much is an MTV sensibility infused for American audiences), and sometimes both at the same time, for example, some great smoldering longing gazes between the main hero and heroine. (One thing that is authentic Bollywood is that there are no actual on-screen Hollywood kisses.) The musical numbers allowed the movie to take itself lightly, while also taking itself just seriously enough. The successful balance calls to mind Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, where occasionally corny musical numbers didn't undo the romance. Since we knew the Jane Austen ending already, it was just a lot of fun to how the story spins out in its new setting. It's a delight.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The Math Has Changed

While I was not impressed with President Bush's filing cabinet theatrics earlier this week, he did say something I completely agree with. Unfortunately, this more honest and germane statement got buried under the filing cabinet in most accounts, if it was printed at all:

"Franklin Roosevelt did a good thing when he created the Social Security system. It's worked. But the math has changed," he told a crowd at West Virginia University after his trip to the filing cabinet. "The longer we wait, the more costly it's going to be to a future generation of Americans."
Here the President hits the nail on the head: the math has changed. While some people are afraid of the math, there are some simple factors that go into this, that practically all Americans should be able to grasp intuitively, so I don't see why our leaders seem afraid to acknowledge them. The Social Security equation depends on the ratio of workers to retirees. In FDR's time, there were approximately 16 workers paying into the system for each 1 retiree drawing out of it. More recently, that ratio has dropped to 3 workers per retiree, and is heading toward 2. Why is the ratio of workers to retirees dropping? For one, the "baby boom" has been passing through our national demographics, like a snake digesting a rabbit, for the last sixty years, and now that generation is about to retire. Post-boom Americans just haven't been having as many children as their parents did, so as a large generation grows old, there aren't as many younger people coming along to replace it. More significantly, we're living longer. While our life expectancy has been increasing, the retirement age hasn't changed very much. In FDR's day, retirees typically enjoyed retirement for about 5 years before they died. Now, it's upwards of 10 years and growing.

If that's too abstract, perhaps an image will help. Picture the population of America standing on a football field, arranged youngest to oldest from one goal line to the other. In 1945, everyone below the 30 yard line are children, and everyone above the 90 yard line are retirees. Those 60 yards in between are filled with working Americans. Flash forward to 2005. Now the children don't quite make it to the 25 yard line, while the retirees are approaching the 70 yard line (and in control of the ball, first down, moving down field). Working Americans are left defending 45 yards in the middle.

The gist of the problem is that Social Security, as currently constructed as a pay-as-you-go system, depends on a balance of workers paying into the system to pay the retirees collecting from it. If the number of retirees gets bigger compared to the number of workers, the system gets out of balance. When the system gets out of balance, there are only three ways that it can be re-balanced:

  • have workers pay more (raise taxes)
  • have retirees get less (reduce benefits)
  • change the ratio of workers to retirees (raise the retirement age)
The first option, raising taxes, is advocated by some and deplored by others (mostly along the usual ideological divides). The second option, reducing benefits, is advocated by others and deplored by some. The third option (to my mind the most reasonable) seems to be the true "third rail". I hear neither Democrats nor Republicans talking much about raising the retirement age. For one thing, raising the retirement age would preserve Social Security as it was originally intended. It was meant to keep Americans from eating cat food for the last few years of their lives (and to insure against outliving one's savings). It was not meant to provide Americans greens fees for the last decades of their lives. People can work hard and save up extra to achieve earlier and/or more comfortable retirement. (In fact, having the security of insurance against complete destitution in one's old age affords the freedom to take a bit more risk in one's youth, enabling prudent young entrepeneurs to be bolder than they might otherwise be.)

By far the most intriguing proposition I have heard salvages the system by diverting a small part of current payroll taxes to personal accounts (as President Bush wants), but finances that and preserves the existing system by raising the retirement age to 72. This shift in retirement age changes the equation enough to rebalance the system and finance the new personal accounts. The enticing twist is that the personal accounts can be used to finance an earlier (or a more comfortable) retirement. This hybrid system keeps the good part of the traditional system (protection against outliving one's assets, and the security of a defined benefit) and adds the good part of the personal accounts (enabling each person to make their own decisions about risk vs. potential rewards) while avoiding the bad parts of personal accounts (the possibility of risks gone bad or outliving one's savings). In this scenario, the risk of personal accounts is shifted from end-of-life to late middle age, where the worst downsides are working for a few more years or living more frugally, but not sleeping on the streets in advanced old age. This makes a heck of a lot of sense to me. I wish our leaders would start talking about some real solutions like this one.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


In response to yesterday's blog about the "IOUs" (a.k.a. government bonds) in the Social Security Trust Fund, the estimable KipEsquire comments that "full faith and credit" is only meaningful if it is between two independent parties. An "IOU" from me to myself is meaningless (is that an "I-O-Me"?), and equally meaningless, he argues, are bonds issued and held by the federal government. While I understand his point, I disagree that an "I-O-Me" is necessarily meaningless. Any IOU (including an I-O-Me) is as good as the "faith and credit" (i.e., willingness and ability to pay) that backs it up. You can have IOUs between independent parties where the "faith" and/or "credit" is weak (think "junk-grade" corporate bonds), and you can have I-O-Mes backed by a solid intention and future ability to repay (think home equity line of credit). So the strength of the "full faith and credit" is not necessarily correlated to the arms-length of the transaction. Of course the danger of a loan to yourself is that it makes it easier to forgive (and write off) the debt. How willing and able the government will be in 2017 to meet its obligations to the Trust Fund is the $6.4 trillion question.

It should also be noted that a shift to personal accounts will not eliminate I-O-Mes. The majority of American corporate pensions/401(k)s and individual retirement accounts allow for the individual to borrow their own money out of their retirement account for present use. (Nearly one in five American families with a retirement account has an outstanding loan against it, per a 2004 ICI report.) The individual is expected to repay the loan with interest, but like all loans, it is always possible to walk away from the debt (with tax and credit repercussions). And late last year, ING announced a new credit card that is backed by your own retirement. (This was actually the idea, in part, of the Nobel-winning economist Modigliani, who believed it would have beneficial effects.)

The impact of borrowing one's own retirement savings depends on a couple of factors, according to the Center for Retirement Research. The first factor is whether the loan is used to increase current consumption (e.g., a vacation), or merely to rearrange current finances (e.g., consolidate credit card debt at a lower rate). The second factor is whether the loan is ultimately paid off or not. They note that increasing current consumption reduces total lifetime consumption. The money that you won't have later because you've spent it now is compounded by foregone earnings and tax leverage. Most of these same issues would apply to the federal government borrowing from the Trust Fund. It's already clear that the money borrowed has been used to increase federal consumption (it wasn't used to pay off other bond debt). Given the gaping national debt, will the loan turn out to have been an "early distribution"? That will depend on the willingness and ability of Americans to pay more taxes, and whether the rest of the world will finally put a credit limit on the American national credit card.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Half-Full Faith and Credit - or Half-Empty?

I credit President Bush with seizing the "third rail" of American politics, and actually getting Social Security on the agenda. But can we really make progress on this issue if both sides keep making ridiculous arguments? The Democrats insist, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that everything is hunky-dory and there's nothing to worry about. Now, the President stoops to misguided political theatrics, posing next to a filing cabinet, telling us:

"There is no trust fund, just IOUs that I saw firsthand, that future generations will pay," Bush said after inspecting the storage site. "Imagine - the retirement security for future generations is sitting in a filing cabinet."
What did the President think he would find? Some huge pile of C-notes stuffed under some gigantic federal mattress? Our entire economy is based on "IOUs" and other pieces of paper sitting in filing cabinets. Why, my husband and I have a good chunk of our retirement sitting in our filing cabinet. It's called the deed to our house. Just a piece of paper. As is the note held by our lender, worth a tidy sum in their opinion, but just an "IOU" sitting in a filing cabinet somewhere. And if we had private retirement accounts as the President would like us to have, would we have a pile of gold in Fort Knox with our name on it? Um, no. We would have a periodic paper statement informing us that the federal government is holding shares of some index mutual fund. In other words, more pieces of paper sitting in some filing cabinet (in some huge new filing cabinet complex that the government would have to build, probably in West Virginia, next door to the Social Security trust fund). And even that mutual fund itself will just be a paper thing, a promise that some stock certificates (more paper) sit in yet another filing cabinet (on Wall Street).

Indeed, even cash itself, those crisp green bank notes, are just paper promises representing faith in our economy. It seems truly bizarre for the President of the United States to be trivializing the full faith and credit of the United States. Just what does President Bush imagine that the Treasury is going to give to the people who are supposed to finance all the money he wants to borrow? Just an IOU. Fancy folks call them "bonds", and they have an expectation that the United States actually honors its bonds. Imagine.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Senatorial Game of Chicken

It appears that Republicans and Democrats in the Senate are headed for a game of chicken over the upcoming judicial nominations, and the "battle of the filibuster" that will ensue. Fortunately, it appears that at least a few Republican Senators today have a memory longer than the last election and foresight further than the next one, and recognize that it would do a disservice to the institution of the Senate to "nuke" the filibuster. Contrary to current Republican rhetoric, the filibuster is neither unprecedented nor unconstitutional. The Senate is intentionally designed in the Constitution to be the chamber where minority rights are preserved, and some constitutional scholars have argued that a supermajority requirement for important judicial nominations would be consistent with the Constitution.

President Bush is the true "obstructionist" here by renominating candidates he knows full well are not broadly acceptable. If the President honestly means any of his "uniting" bipartisan rhetoric, he would nominate judges that can be confirmed by broad consensus. Last term, he succeeded in doing so over 200 times. Why not find just a few more judges like those first 200, rather than squander his political capital and the nation's trust in picking a fight over the handful of judges who failed to garner broad acceptance?

Attention any Senators who care about doing what's right for America: don't nuke the filibuster, nuke the aisle.

Monday, April 04, 2005


It will be nearly impossible for anyone not to contemplate the passing of the Pope this week. No one would dispute that John Paul II has had a profound impact on our world, though some will dispute that his impact has been good. No one could credibly assert that his intentions were not deeply good, but anyone who has that much influence on the world, no matter how well intentioned, has the capacity to do significant harm. Just over a month ago, I wrote reacting to John Paul's characterization of my life as part of a "new ideology of evil", and suggested that he should examine aspects of his own ideology for insidious evil. Nonetheless, I still have great respect for the man who has been Pope more than half of my life, and I choose to dwell on his goodness in remembering him.

He was a very worldly and people-loving Pope, traveling the world to greet those hungry for his presence, sometimes at risk to his own health or safety. It has been said that he was personally seen by more people than anyone else in all of history. He was also a deeply philosophical Pope and an amazingly industrious Pope. It would not surprise me to hear that the accumulation of his writings exceeds the output of the last several centuries of Popes combined. And though I may disagree with some of his convictions, I can still respect him for holding them so strongly and speaking them so forcefully. Yet the thing that stands out for me the most about John Paul was the strength of his desire for reconciliation. This manifested in three ways. Ecclesiastically, John Paul desired reconciliation among Christian churches, and he made significant efforts to reach out to the Orthodox and Anglican churches in particular. And he reached out to all religions in ways previously unthinkable for a Pope. What other Pope would have lead a multidenominational prayer gathering for peace that included Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and more? Magisterially, while he was strict in demanding adherence to doctrine, he was also uniquely forthright in apologizing for the church's past wrongs where he recognized them, including the remarkable rehabilitation of Galileo, the acknowledgement of Darwin, and most importantly, his reconciliatory moves toward the Jewish people. Spiritually, he practiced forgiveness, most powerfully illustrated when he visited and forgave the man who attempted to assassinate him. By such dramatic examples, he lived to forgive and to seek forgiveness. Though I am personally hurt that he considered my convictions to be insidiously evil, and I am concerned about the horrendous consequences of some of his doctrinal legacy, I will also remember the Christian example of how he lived, and respond in the appropriate way -- the way that he would fervently have wished to inspire in all of us: in a spirit of forgiveness. Ego te absolvo, Iohannes Paulus II, requiescat in pace.

Genealogists Anonymous

"Hi, my name is Tom. I'm a genealogist. I've been researching my family history for about a year now..."

Okay, I admit it. This genealogy stuff is totally addictive. My husband only dimly understands why it keeps me up until 3AM sometimes, or how I can be motivated to pore over endless microfilms in dimly lit underground libraries. Part of it is the fascination of learning about American (and world) history in the process, and discovering a more personal connection to historic events, because some ancestor of mine fought in the Civil War, or helped settle colonial Connecticut, or married a Scottish laird. And part of it is the thrill of the "detective work", because every new piece of information answers one question and raises a few new ones, and it can be a real sleuthing challenge to find the clues and make the puzzle pieces fit. It's definitely a thrill when you break through what had been a brick wall. So now the secret's out. And now you know why I've missed a few days of blogging this past week!

1876 Society Pages Help Solve Genealogy Puzzle

A social notice from the pages of an 1876 Brooklyn NY newspaper helped provide the missing puzzle piece to link my family to another 8 generations of genealogy! I had the 1866 Brooklyn birth certificate of my great-grandfather, which named his parents Edward P. TAYLOR and Frances P. HOLT. Alas, I had run into a bit of a brick wall, as 1866 was the first year that Brooklyn kept such records. In genealogy research, having a common surname like TAYLOR or HOLT is no blessing, as it means you have a much bigger haystack to search for your needles, and also that you can't assume that an Edward TAYLOR mentioned in one document is the same Edward TAYLOR mentioned in another. With Internet searching (Google is a genealogist's friend!), I had located an entire HOLT family history that began in England in 1602 and ended in 1864 (when the book was written), and included a Charles HOLT in Brooklyn. I suspected a link between Charles HOLT and my Frances P. HOLT, but needed to confirm it somehow. The breakthrough came when I came across a page from the Brooklyn Standard Union of October 10, 1876, that announced the golden wedding anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Charles HOLT. The article was lengthy, and provided a wonderful glimpse of the life of Charles HOLT, including his profession, community service, participation in a local chorus and baseball team, church activities, and so on. On the other hand, it was a bit of a tease for harvesting genealogical information, as it mentioned he had six children without giving any of their names, and it didn't even tell us the name of Mrs. Charles HOLT. Nor did it actually name the church they belonged to, referring to it only as "Dr. Scudder's church". The only names it gave were a half dozen or so who had sent letters and telegrams of congratulation. One of them -- a James PEARCE, Esq. of Richmond VA -- was identified as Mrs. HOLT's brother, an indirect indication of her maiden name. Another one -- Rev. J. Clement FRENCH -- caught my eye, as I knew that my great-grandfather had a brother named Clement and another brother named Charles French. With a bit of Googling, I discovered that the Rev. J. Clement FRENCH had been the first pastor at the Central Congregational Church in Brooklyn when it was established in 1854, though he later moved to a Presbyterian church in Newark NJ. Some more Googling revealed that "Dr. Scudder" was Rev. Henry Martin SCUDDER, an interesting fellow born in India to missionary parents, and became both a medical doctor and a pastor, and who in fact was the pastor of the Central Congregational Church during 1872-1882. With the church confirmed, and these other bits of information, I was able to do some productive searching in an online archive of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (bless the Brooklyn Public Library for this awesome resource, going back to 1841!). There I was able to find an article about the 25th anniversary of the school associated with the Central Congregational Church, which identified Charles HOLT and Edward P. TAYLOR as previous superintendants of the school. Here was a hint tying my TAYLOR ancestor to that HOLT family, and suggesting how they may have become associated. This also gives the clue as to who my great-great-great uncles were named after (their pastor Rev. Clement FRENCH). Eventually, I was able to find my great-great-grandparents' wedding announcement, and confirm that Charles HOLT was indeed my great-great-great-grandfather!